Habitat Destruction and Metapopulation Dynamics

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Summary

The rapid loss and fragmentation of natural habitats worldwide has spurred an expanding theoretical literature on metapopulation dynamics, which is expected to answer questions about the minimum viable metapopulation size and the minimum amount of suitable habitat necessary for long-term metapopulation persistence. The simplest rule-of-thumb approaches are unlikely to have much practical value, whereas complex simulation models can only be applied to a few exceptionally well known species. Spatially realistic metapopulation models with a limited number of parameters may represent the right compromise between realism and generality. These models can be parameterized with a limited amount of information to make practical predictions about metapopulation lifetime in arbitrary networks of habitat patches. Such predictions represent an analogous but probably more useful contribution to conservation than the well-known rules of reserve design based on the dynamic theory of island biogeography. One severe limitation of metapopulation modeling is the common assumption of stochastic steady state at the metapopulation level. This may be a bad assumption for most metapopulations in rapidly changing landscapes. In the worst scenario, many still existing rare and endangered species are already “living dead,” committed to extinction because extinction is the equilibrium toward which their metapopulations are moving in the current fragmented landscape. To conserve them we must reverse the process of habitat loss and fragmentation.